A green lawn often goes hand-in-hand with the white picket fence. It’s part of the dream. It’s part of America’s culture. It’s your own little carefully-tended patch of paradise.
However, times are changing, with a renewed focus on sustainable living. 9 billion gallons of water per day are used to maintain lawns in the United States, according to the EPA. This makes lawn care a waste of water if you live pretty much anywhere besides Seattle.
The Disadvantages of the American Lawn
Having a lawn-based yard has other disadvantages, even if you’re not staggering through a drought. Here are some examples:
- Fertilizer and pesticide use can (and has) hurt the surrounding ecosystem.
- Gas-powered mowers are used to maintain lawns.
- Grass takes an insane amount of water. Some estimates say that half of residential water is used to maintain the lawn.
- Lawns occupy land that could otherwise be a habitat for native plants and animals.
- Grass takes a lot of time and money to maintain. Americans in 2009 spent $20 billion in a year on lawn care. And some estimates state that the average American spends about 70 hours per year on lawn care.
- The look is generic and many find it uncreative and lacking in local flavor.
How Did Grass become Classic?
Most of the species of grass we use for our yards aren’t native to North America. They’ve been transplanted from tropical islands and rainy grasslands like Scotland. Even Kentucky Bluegrass is actually native to Europe. The practice of having a lawn became popular for several reasons. For one thing, there’s the strategic use of it. Having a wide lawn bordering a fortress made it much easier to see attackers as they came. However, decorative lawns came into popular use as the gentry utilized them in landscaping decisions. It quickly became a badge of status, as only the very wealthy could afford to have an entire workforce just dedicated to maintaining a decorative crop.
Because it was popular among the wealthy, the middle class inevitably adopted it during the Victorian era. The philosophy and care of residential lawns gradually developed, up until the explosion of planned communities and suburbs in America during the 50’s. A lawn was a way to blend pastoral ideals with military efficiency and conformance.
Ready to Grow Past the Lawn?
If you’re over the common practice of laying down sod, and you’re ready to make your yard more sustainable, creative, and drought-resistant, take a look at these ideas for a great landscape with less lawn.
Pocket gardens: Pocket gardens are little sections of the yard where you have a concentrated area of plants. These sections provide more variety and more habitat for local animals than a lawn would. Pocket gardens work especially well for succulents if you’re in a desert area. It’s also great when incorporated with interesting garden pathways and differentiations in the levels of the ground.
Play with textures of concrete and stonework: Sure, flat concrete across the yard looks like something straight out of a gulag, but there are plenty of ways to play with concrete and stonework that look amazing. Green elements aren’t the only way to add visual interest to your yard. Get a variety of textures and elements and make it a design asset instead of an infrastructure necessity. Incorporate gravel, pebbles, slabs of concrete, and large stones in order to create design and contrast.
Feature the pathways: Make the pathways the feature of your yard instead of the lawn. This is a great way to make your yard look inviting, even without a soft lawn. You can feature your path by making it a beautiful statement piece of pavers, flagstones, cobblestones, or even brick. Make your pathway look less severe by allowing patches of lawn (or other groundcover) between the stones, or you can add in large potted plants along the border. Prominent pathways are also really useful if you opt for alternative groundcover that doesn’t handle foot traffic very well.
Got the pathways covered? Consider adding other hardscaping elements, including retaining walls, fountains, raised beds, etc. Check out these ideas for rock landscaping ideas.
Consider a new alternative for white space: One of the reasons that grass is such a great default for our yards is that it makes “white space” or blank space that gives our eyes places to rest, so they’re not bombarded with stimulation from every quarter. However, your yard’s “white space” doesn’t have to be green! Use stonework, concrete, gravel, and mulch instead for those spaces between features. This is a great way to embrace the modern minimal look, which is also a great way to save on decorating and home-planning. Browse “modern garden” inspiration boards for great ideas you can use on your space.
Grow gardens, not lawn: Covering about 2% of the continental United States, turf grass actually qualifies as the single most common irrigated crop in America. Considering that it’s a purely ornamental crop with no other benefits, this is just a ridiculous use of water. However, if there were actually something being produced by that lawn, the investment of water and maintenance would be worth it. Say, for example, you were actually growing cucumbers out there, or tomatoes, or squash.
Gardens can be beautifully decorative. From runner beans trailing up a fence to decorative kale, it might be time to start planting something in your yard that will fill up a salad later in the season.
Alternative groundcover: Grass is certainly not the only thing that can fulfill its purpose in a yard. There are other things that can cover the ground, create visual interest, and create effective divisions between other elements of your yard. Consider planting alternative grasses (which are hardier and native) as well as runners that send out horizontal vines and sometimes touch down in the soil again. Here are some examples of beautiful alternative groundcover:
- Mesa Verde ice plant
- Creeping thyme
- Wooly thyme
- Creeping Jenny
Use lawn in smaller patches: There is a purpose for lawn. After all, how much of your childhood relied on a great lawn for games like tag, Simon Says, and catch? There’s something about a good lawn that lures us outside to play. In order to go greener, you don’t have to get rid of all of your lawn. Have a designated functional space that actually gets used, then treasure it! It’s worth the investment as long as you’re using it, and smart practices can still help you save on sprinkler water usage. If, on the other hand, the only time anyone in your family spends time on the lawn is to mow it, then it’s probably time to rethink your landscaping.